Holiday spirit moves Mavs fans to give up seats

The Dallas Mavericks don't have a regular courtside customer from the Jack Nicholson/Spike Lee/Eva Longoria universe.

The front-row folks at American Airlines Center are known for something else.

They're known for an annual (and powerful) act of charity during the Christmas season that, if not exactly glamorous, has the capacity to move a crowd of thousands.

"There isn't a more goose-bump-raising moment in sports than watching 150 soldiers stand up in the front row and react to 20,000 Mavs fans giving them a three-minute standing ovation," Mavs owner Mark Cuban says.

Cuban makes that claim based on what he's seen year after year at an event called Seats for Soldiers. For one night every December, Mavs season-ticket holders with the best seats in the house turn in their tickets to allow soldiers injured in combat from the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio -- most of whom have suffered some sort of catastrophic injury -- to see what it's like to live life like Jack, Spike and Eva.

The concept, which dates back to the spring of 2004, is the brainchild of serial Mavs fan Neil Hawks. The local real estate developer read a newspaper story about the burns, loss of limbs and general severity of the injuries regularly seen at BAMC -- which treats wounded soldiers from numerous states -- and felt as though he needed to give something more personal than a monetary donation. So he organized trips to Dallas for a group of eight recovering soldiers to sit in and around his baseline seats at three separate Mavs games.

It wasn't called Seats for Soldiers back then. It had no official title and wasn't a formally scheduled event held in conjunction with the team. But those first few outings were a hit. The folks in the floor seats dressed in military camouflage attracted lots of attention and prompted several fellow front-row patrons to approach Hawks with questions ... as well as the offer of more tickets.

The concept quickly grew to the point that Hawks found himself combining with fellow season-ticket holder Jamie Stewart, Cuban and the Mavericks' ticket-selling team, led by George Prokos, on an ambitious idea. The goal every December is to pick one game and fill every front-row seat with a wounded soldier in hopes of ringing the court with camouflage.

One example of how people react to the concept: Hawks delights in telling the story of when veteran referee Joey Crawford spotted the soldiers during a timeout a few years back and insisted on flagging down a courtside server to buy them a round of beers.

"It made it so I can't really yell at Joey anymore," Hawks said.

"The focus is obviously on the soldiers and what they've done for their country," he continued. "But I'd like to say something about our fans, too. I think people look at the front-row [occupants] as this hoity-toity crowd, but I'm amazed by how many of our season-ticket holders are ready, willing and able to offer up their seats. I never expected it to get this big. I thought we might have 50 or 60 someday. Now we're up to about 140."

That number represented a near-unanimous surrender of floor seats -- which average nearly $1,700 each -- for this season's Seats for Soldiers night on Dec. 13. The total value of the tickets donated for the Mavericks' 103-99 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder was estimated at more than $235,000.

Sizable donations also come from the likes of American Airlines and local restaurateur Kent Rathbun, one of the country's leading celebrity chefs. American chartered one of its three yellow-ribbon jets -- the ribbon honors veterans and active military personnel -- and filled it with a volunteer flight crew and members of the Mavs' dance team to pick up the soldiers in San Antonio and fly them in on game day. Upon landing at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, they were bused to Rathbun's Abacus restaurant for a pregame meal.

A five-star pregame meal.

"They'll be on the phone calling their friends between bites to say, 'You won't believe where I'm eating,'" Hawks said, laughing.

The soldiers proceeded from dinner to the arena for one hoops fantasy after another. Besides the privilege of experiencing what might be the best vantage point in pro sports and all the free food from the concession stands -- as if they needed more food after the restaurant trip -- they were asked by Mavs public address announcer "Humble" Billy Hayes to rise during a break in play so they could receive their standing-O salute, while Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" was piped in as background music.

All that was followed by the postgame treat of a private audience with the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry for pictures and autographs before the late-night return flight to San Antonio. Visiting players usually don't partake in these meet-and-greets, but Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant joined in this time when he heard that some of the soldiers were asking for him.

"A lot of them were from Texas and had seen me play in college," said Durant, taken No. 2 overall in the 2007 draft after one memorable year with the Longhorns. "They were giving me a lot of feedback. For a lot of them, it's the first NBA game they've ever been to, but some of those guys know a lot about the game.

"But I wanted to pick their brains, too, [and] try to find out how it feels to go through what they've gone through. It was just a humbling experience."

Former U.S. Army corporal J.R. Martinez hears those questions a lot. He was dispatched to Iraq in April 2003 and a little more than a month later suffered severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body, including his face and ears, when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine and trapped Martinez inside.

Martinez was one of Hawks' first guests in 2004, while still in the midst of the 32 -- yes, 32 -- surgeries he would undergo during a lengthy recovery. The 25-year-old has since rebounded to the point that he can loosely (but amazingly) describe himself as a show-business colleague of Jack, Spike and Eva, having landed a recurring soap opera role on ABC's "All My Children" as a badly burned veteran of the Iraq war.

Yet Martinez, to this day, speaks of his first exposure to the roaring, tearful appreciation of Mavs fans as "the night of a lifetime."

"Celebrities get that kind of attention every time they walk into a building," Martinez said. "For that one night, you get to feel like a celebrity. You really feel like you're on top of the world. For that night, we were the superstars.

"You get these tickets, courtside seats, but on top of that, you've got all these people coming up to you all night long, thanking you for protecting them. All these people are so appreciative and almost worshipping the ground you walk on.

"I always tell them that you don't understand what a night like this does for us. It's worth more than you can imagine. These are things that a lot of these soldiers would never get to do [otherwise], and it's happening to [soldiers] that had lost all hope."

Cuban posted video highlights of the 2008 edition of Seats for Soldiers on his personal blog under the heading "Why owning the Mavs can be amazing."

"It's been a great tradition that the Mavs and the entire Dallas-Fort Worth community is proud of," Cuban said. "I don't think anyone who gives up tickets considers it a sacrifice. It's a reward to those who give everything and then some to serve our country."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.